I Need a New Drug…

…an Anti-Love Drug, perhaps?

Really, can Philip K. Dick’s “mood organ” be far behind?

It’s no surprise to me that love, like everything else biological creatures do, has its roots in brain chemistry- pure mechanical cause and effect, thank you, nothing mystical, magical, or spiritual about it. Which means that some day, maybe not soon, but eventually, we will learn how to manipulate it. We already fumble with the controls, but we’ll get better at it. Unless we destroy ourselves first, of course.

Following a completely different line of musings after listening to the excellent Radiolab ‘cast on morality, I did some revision on my ideas about emotion vs. logic. I have previously come to the conclusion that emotions in humans are essentially just animal instincts coupled with our ability to recognize patterns and ascribe symbolic meaning to memory (which is, in my opinion, what sets us apart from other animals- for now). Emotions, therefore, are not “bad” or something to be ignored- they evolved in us for a reason. They are a tool, a reference point, a valuable part of the decision-making process when tempered by reason.

After listening to that ‘cast (this being the second time I’ve heard it), it occurred to me that emotions/instincts are really logic spread over evolutionary time. They represent the choice that has produced positive results the most consistently over hundreds of thousands of instances during the evolutionary path of a given species. That’s why they are hardwired, reactions, designed to override “logic” in situations where there isn’t time to reason things out.

Which, as I’m writing this, I’m realizing isn’t in any way out of line with what I already think, it just explains another part of the puzzle a little better for me.

One of the moral dilemmas posed in the ‘cast- taken from the final episode of M*A*S*H, as I understand it (and probably from countless real-life instances) is whether or not one would choose to kill their own child in order to save the lives of their entire community.

This is a real tough one for me. One of those situations where you can decide in your mind all you want, but you don’t know what you’d do until you’re actually faced with the decision. So I won’t even bother talking about what I think I’d do. I don’t know.

But more to the point, what’s the morally correct answer? Well, I don’t believe in cosmic morality handed down from on high, which would probably make this a lot easier to answer (which no doubt explains why a lot of people embrace religion- it makes morality ever so much simpler by removing self-determination from the process. Except of course it really doesn’t, which is why pretty much all religious people are hypocrites, even the nice ones. Not that everyone isn’t a hypocrite, most of us just go about it more quietly.)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. So, this kill-the-baby or not-kill-the-baby thing. As the problem is put, the choices are
A) You personally kill your own baby, and your community is spared.
B) You don’t kill your own baby, it makes noise, and soldiers kill everyone.

So, either way the baby dies, right? From a pure math standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. I won’t explore why people are split 50/50 on the matter- go listen to the webcast if it interests you (which it should). What I can’t help thinking about is… well… hm. Now that I’m trying to figure out how to say this, it sounds kinda fucked up. Maybe it is. You be the judge:

I have my own similar scenario that I’ve played out in my head many times over the past few years. It’s a hostage thing, myself and several others are being held at gunpoint. And I’m being told to do something to aid the terrorists- open a vault or whatever. The obvious threat being that if I don’t, the terrorists will kill someone. Sometimes it’s me. Sometimes a stranger. Sometimes someone I care about.

Now, I know what I’d do in real life. I’m an utter coward, and I’d do whatever they wanted me to do to save myself or anyone else. But in my head, where I can be someone better than myself, I refuse. Let them torture or kill me. Even- and here’s where it gets fucked up- let them torture or kill someone else. Even a loved one. And my rationale for this- despite just being generally prone to resisting coercion- is that if I act to help the terrorists, I am committing “evil” (small “e”, subjective evil). If I refuse, and a terrorist shoots my mom, the terrorist has committed the evil act, while I remain… well, for lack of a better word, blameless. Which is fucking bizarre, since I don’t believe in any higher power that assigns blame, and I know for a fact that society at large would not assign blame, so whose blame exactly am I avoiding?

I guess, in the final estimation, it’s my own.

Another scenario I’ve gone over countless times is the classic Spider-Man catch-22. Save Mary Jane, or defuse the bomb. You can’t do both! The Green Goblin is laughing as his glider soars away, there are only seconds left on the timer, and MJ is already plummeting to her doom. Do I dive after the girl I love and let hundreds in the building perish? Do I save the hundreds and let MJ splatter? Aside from the fact that Spidey probably doesn’t know how to disarm a bomb, and aside from the fact that any of the hundreds of other supers zipping around the city will probably catch MJ anyway. These conundrums always exist in a vacuum, or they wouldn’t make very worthwhile thought experiments, now, would they?

So what do I do?

I go after the Goblin and kill him. Every time.

Because, in my mind, the deaths of the Goblin’s victims are not on my conscience. HE set that bomb. HE threw MJ off the roof. And even mathematically speaking, the weight of all his future victims completely overwhelms the consideration of the current ones. If I take him out now, when he’s not expecting it, I can save all of those future victims.

So, you tell me, does refusing to make the who-to-save decision make me a greater hero or a bigger coward?


Ok, so, I’d probably save MJ first, and THEN kill the Goblin.


~ by oberon the fool on February 24, 2009.

3 Responses to “I Need a New Drug…”

  1. 1.) Will it do any good? If you kill the baby to keep it quiet, but you and the other townspeople are discovered anyway, then your act accomplishes nothing. Also, you don’t know that you *will* be found until you *are* found. Unless you’re somehow psychic and know the outcomes of events before anyone else does.

    2.) Who is to say that the life of one person is LESS than that of many? Just because there are more people who could be saved because you reroute a train, or smother a baby, does that mean that you’re saving the right one(s)? Would you make a different decision if you found out that the people on the tracks were a gang of rapists and the person you’re sacrificing is Grandma Sally Owens – hunting them down for deflowering her granddaughter?

    3.) Not that you can know any of this in the moment when you have to act, right? It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat – you don’t know what will happen until it happens, and until you’re on the other side of it (that’s when the story comes out).

    4.) Hooray for the prairie voles, for they have been inoculated against love. You know, love isn’t such a bad thing – chemicals and all.

    5.) The use of chemicals to alter our *states* creeps me out. Not just for love, but for depression, or hyperactivity, etc. Our emotions can be manipulated, sure, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying reasons for them.

    6.) Love *is* pain, highness, anyone who tells you differently is selling something. Yeah. Well, you know what, Westley? Maybe we’re all sick of everyone being broken by the things that other people have done to them.

  2. Also, it is perhaps a total victim mentality to assume that in even one of the cases the blame should lie on you, whatever you do. If there ARE terrorists in your village, whether you save the baby or kill the baby to save others, the “blame” rests on terrorists. Because in the normal swing of things, unless you have post-partum pyschosis, one would not consider infanticide or mass extermination among one’s daily moral dilemmas. It’s the presence of killers that changes us. Hopefully, after the baby-killing is done, you can impregnate a different girl in a happier place. That takes care of you, evolutionarily speaking, although you’ll still have nightmares. Let all the villagers die (baby and you included), that ends billions of years of biological warfare for the whole damn lot of you.

    Anyway, I’m really glad you’re linking this to LJ, although I realize it must be irritating. Only I very much limit my visits to the Internet. Last night, for example, I checked my email then read a book. So I’m not on much. That’s my bad — but it would be a crying shame to miss these posts of yours. So, as long as your irritation is not overridden by a desire to be read, please do keep posting links. And thank you.

  3. 1) Yeah, I meant to bring that up, but I got carried along in my stream of thought. In the thought-experiment, you’re confined to two choices. Dead baby or dead everybody. The baby dies either way, so really, that shouldn’t even be a choice. But it is, and a lot of people choose “wrong”. I guess it comes down to the blame thing.

    2) As far as nature is concerned, math is math. Now, it might be weighted toward those who are healthy and likely to reproduce. But on nature’s scale, the math doesn’t have to be exact, because the sample size is incomprehensibly vast. As long as something works most of the time, that’s good enough as far as evolution is concerned. That’s what instincts are, I think. Nature’s cold mathematics. As to your question- yes, I’d let the gang of rapists die, if I knew. I’m actually not certain I’d pull the lever regardless. Again, it’s one of those things where you can’t know until you know.

    3) Right. I covered that, I think.

    4) Love is a great thing. Humans wouldn’t be around without it.

    5) Yeah, it’s pretty scary. But I’m pretty sure it’s inevitable. Humans don’t leave well enough alone- it’s not in our nature. It’s just a race to see whether we’ll save ourselves before we destroy ourselves. Fortunately, no matter what we do, the Earth will keep humming merrily along well after we’re gone.

    6) Yeah. I’m not convinced that love can’t exist without pain. Or at least in some way where the joy outweighs the pain. How does one measure one against the other, though? Everyone’s math for that is unique and personal.

    I don’t mind that my math comes up with the answers it does… I just wish society didn’t feel the need to tell me I’m wrong, bad, and broken because of it.

    – – –

    Right! The blame is on the people who commit the acts! But is it also on the people who could prevent the acts and choose not to? I don’t know. Since blame is subjective, the answer is recalculated for every instance by every apprehender.

    I don’t think most people in the US have to consider moral dilemmas that include infanticide, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume the rest of the world is as fortunate as we.

    “It’s the presence of killers that changes us.” Yeah.

    You know you can have your web browser keep track of where all your friends are online, right? That’s how I do it. I don’t know about crying shame, but thanks for saying so.

    – – –

    I’m reading some articles in the Discover Magazine special on Darwin’s anniversary that may also contribute to this discussion… I’ll post more once I’m done reading them, maybe.

    Thanks for the comments, both of you. ^_^

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